Fiction on Lablit, article on EPFL, free book!

I have a new short story over at Lablit! It is based on true events. Specifically, true events that happened to me during my PhD. Click here to read.

There is also a new article on EPFL from yours truly. High-temperature superconductors are inching closer. Click here to read.

And lastly, get your FREE copy of LAZARUS from Smashwords! Offer ends tomorrow.

– Nik

Quirky photons spin out of the Standard Model

New article on EPFL!

Doing some hardcore analysis on data from the LHC “beauty” experiment, a group at EPFL found evidence that when a bottom quark decays into a strange quark it emits a photon that’s polarized.

Why’s that important? Because it might just be a nudge towards New Physics. And no, that doesn’t mean we’ll be leaving on the Enterprise any time soon. Although…

Read more here.

–Nik

The Face: Part 6 – Finale!

Part 5

Jane had to muster all her courage to keep her eyes on Peter as he lay on the hospital bed. In the end, she just told herself that she would not have to do so for long. Seven hours in the waiting room had drained her, leaving her practically numb.

Peter wasn’t a pretty sight. The doctor had told Jane that both his legs had been severed from the knee down and that he had half-drowned in the murky water. But the rest, perhaps the doctor hadn’t much time to describe properly. Or the nerve.

Peter’s right eye was closed. A large cotton bandage over the other one.

She tried not to look at the gap beneath the sheets, where his legs should be. She was not ready for that, and all she could think of was football and his bad knee, so much that at a sick moment she nearly laughed at the irony.

She took his remaining butchered hand – there were only three fingers under the bandage – and struggled inside to quiet her turmoil. But how?

His eyes opened. He didn’t smile at her, but she did. At least she tried.

“Hey babe”, she said with a shrill voice. “Looking good.”

He’s quite a mess, the doctor had said.

Peter said nothing – he just looked at her, his single eye sad and bloodshot.

Jane fought back tears. “How are you feeling? Doctor says you’ll be fine”.

He lost a lot of blood and his wounds were infected in the water, the doctor had said.

What was left of Peter’s face was pale, drained, haggard and very, very sad.

His lips moved. “I ‘m sorry”, he whispered.

Jane shook her head violently. “No, no. Don’t say that.” Tears came flooding now. “You’ll be ok, you’ll be out soon.”

He won’t last the night, the doctor had said. Sorry.

Peter squeezed her hand. “The painting…” he muttered, “… it spoke to me.”

Jane stared at him in dismay. Not only was her husband mutilated, he had gone crazy too.

Peter was still speaking, words lost and chewed and swallowed. Jane listened, and knew that she would hear that slow, wheezy, wretched voice for the rest of her life.

“It… spoke. While I drove. It said things – in my ear. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was the painting… It said you’re really unhappy, Pete.’ It said…” he coughed here and spat some blood. “It said… look at your miserable life, Pete. You helped Piper Jack because you were afraid that one day you’d end up like him. You had dreams, Pete, and now you’re cut down. This job, this compromise, this life… you hate it all. You hate your wife, don’t you, Pete? Because you failed, and you didn’t want to face up to the cost.’ And I tried, Jane, I tried to speak to it, to tell it to shut up… but… it’s voice was in my head and I couldn’t stop it because… I’m so sorry, Jane… because I knew it was right. Because I gave up. I settled. I didn’t face up to it. And I pretended…” He began to cry then, and all Jane could do was hold his hand, afraid to feel anything anymore, because she knew that her husband had tried to kill himself.

Peter slept and died an hour later.

Jane returned to an empty house late at night, after having cried herself dry. Fortunately some of Peter’s family took the burden of funeral arrangements and a friend drove her home. The friend offered to stay the night with her, but Jane insisted that she wanted to just be alone. The friend nodded in sympathy and drove off. “If you need anything, call me, no matter what”.

Jane stood at the door, daunted by the silence that loomed over her. It was heavy, oppressing, and the house was dark, like a tomb.

She shut the door behind her and leaned on it. She was exhausted, ragged, torn to shreds. The pain had retreated now, down in one of the chambers of her heart. She felt like screaming and fainting at the same time, she felt like just dropping there on the floor and staying there until she too was dead. A feeling of complete void had spread throughout her body and her limbs felt both light and heavy. And then, in the chaos of light and dark that had seized her mind, an image appeared. It didn’t surprise her.

She was expecting it.

The Face was there, in her mind’s eye, as vivid as if she was looking at it. It came from far away, out of a dark horizon, and drew nearer and nearer. What had happened to it? Did the police take it? Did it wind up in the ravine too? Or was it destroyed when they towed Peter’s truck?

She knew, of course. The face grew in her mind. She could almost touch it. She glanced towards the stairs and saw the blue light again. But she wasn’t dreaming now, was she? She was wide awake. She pushed herself off the door and walked to the light with steady paces. She kicked off her shoes and let her coat drop on the carpet. Reaching the stairs, she stood with her back to the living room’s entrance. She glanced up where the bedroom was. The blue light engulfed her, bright with clarity, easing her mind. And in that mental pause, everything became clear.

The face was only the vessel. It was an avatar of their life, of things lost in the deep, of everyday rituals, of the masks they had worn and worn out.

She turned around. It was there, smiling at her, hanging on the wall. She was not afraid of it anymore. She walked to it, firmly, unflinching from the bright light it cast.

She stood before it and they locked their gazes for a moment, studying each other patiently, both immersed in the blazing blue light, bright, cold and true.

And then she began to laugh. She laughed, until there were tears in her eyes, she laughed like a madwoman, she laughed  and laughed and turned away laughing and walked away and she disappeared into the dark house, her laughs echoing through its walls, rising and falling and cackling and echoing because she had finally seen it, seen it and could not stand to look at it anymore.

The face in the painting was hers.

THE END

The Face: Part 5

Part 4

“That’s weird. No offence, honey, but it is”. Peter tied the four corners of the towel in a knot and handed it to his wife. It was Sunday morning. Next day. Peter had brought Jane into the bedroom, put her on the bed and brought her a towel filled with ice.

Jane pressed it on her bruised face and sighed. “I know”, she said hoarsely. “And I ‘m scared. All this time, ever since that painting came into the house, I feel like I’ve been losing my mind.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m seeing it change faces, do things, speak, laugh… and then I’m having a nightmare about you sleepwalking, but no, it’s me sleepwalking and falling down the stairs!” She began to sob.

Peter stroke her hair gently. “I don’t know”, he said. “Maybe it was me yelling at you like I did last night. I ‘m really sorry about that, honey. Don’t know what got into me.”

She managed to smile under her bruises. There was her Pete. “It’s okay”, she whispered. “I know that painting means a lot to you.”

Peter waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t matter. I love you more than anyone else, including myself. If that thing is disturbing you, it’s gone.”

Jane was surprised. “Really?”

Peter took her hand into his. “That’s right. Actually, I’m going downstairs right now and taking it off the wall. Our peace – your peace – is more important than any gift.” With that he stood, kissed her softly on the brow and turned to make good his promise.

“Pete?”

“Yeah?”

“You know, I was just wondering about what you said in the dream. About your lost dream, about trying to find happiness and all. I just wanted to ask you about it.”

He laughed. “Honey, it was your dream.”

“Yeah, I know, but – well, you know what they say about dreams.”

“Well?”

“Do you really feel like that? Unhappy?”

He looked down for a moment, and put his hands in his pockets. Jane knew that posture; it was his body language for deep thought.

“Oh, come on”, he said in the end. “Do I look unhappy?”

“No…”

“I’ve got a great home, and I ‘m married to the woman I love. What more could a man want?”

“His football career, perhaps?”

He looked at her, a little sternly, and she wondered if she did well to ask the question. Then his face changed and she knew that she could expect an honest answer. “Look”, he said. “Sure it bothers me – ruining my knee and my quarterback career in one go ain’t exactly the best thing that ever happened to me. But what am I going to do? It was an accident and I have to live with it. That’s the way things are. You lose some, you win some. So in that sense, yes, I could say that I’m unhappy. But when I look at you”, his face brightened here, “I know that happiness doesn’t come from only one place. Life goes on – and I can say I’m happy it does.”

She smiled at him, her tears now of joy. “It does, babe. And I love you too. I know how hard it must be – I see your face every time a game’s on. And I think you are a strong man to be able to see past your losses. Ouch.” She put the ice back on her aching face that was throbbing now with all her talking, and smiled sheepishly. She could feel it – the peace of the rituals was coming back.

“Well, enough sugar for today. I’ll go lose the painting.”

In the evening, as she came down to make his black coffee, Jane stood on the lower step and looked into the living room. She stood there for a while, savouring the empty space where the face hung until the day before. She felt a weight lift off her, and she sighed with relief. She was going to make her husband the best coffee in the world.

While she watched over the boiling water, feeling the hot steam on her swollen face, she wondered a little about it. It was off the wall and out of the house, but what had he done with it? After he left in morning, she had slept for most of the day.

Oh well, she thought. It’s gone. Hopefully he’ll dump it in the swamp. Or burn it. I’m good with either.

A car pulled up the front driveway. Before she looked out of the window, she knew that it was not Peter’s truck, familiar as she was with the deep, rumbling sound of its engine.

It was a patrol car. Jane was at the door before she had a chance to wonder what the police were doing at her house.

The young officer looked solemn when he came out of the car. He was in his mid-twenties and obviously new at giving people bad news. When he told Jane about Peter’s accident, he fumbled with his cap. When Jane screamed and began to weep, he cried too.

The waiting room in the hospital was crowded. It took time for Jane to realise that all those hysterical people were somehow related by the same accident. From fragments of sobbing stories, she got the whole picture before she went in to see her husband.

Peter had been heading down Highway 23, the one that passed by river. It was early and still dark. The road was wet too – it always was over there, especially in the winter when the banks flooded.

Pater came at a crossroad but for some reason, he didn’t stop – not even when he saw the massive lights of an oncoming semi coming from the opposite direction. Neither did he seem to hear its blaring horn. He just let his vehicle cross over to the semi’s lane and, just before collision, he swerved to the right.

After the semi smashed into his side, Peter’s truck was pushed for about a quarter mile, falling on its side, co-driver’s seat screeching on the asphalt, hitting three pedestrians and taking two sedans and a motorcycle with it.

Strangely, Peter’s truck slid away even after the mass of twisted metal and torn bodies had stopped – some six hundred yards from the initial point of collision – and disappeared inside a ravine. When the police arrived, they found Peter’s truck with its face immersed in water, the carriage sticking out of the slimy, brown surface, loaded with the weirdest painting they had ever seen.

To be continued…